After the divisive Democratic National Committee chair election, what’s next?
Tom Perez triumphed over Keith Ellison for the position of DNC chair. Has the damaged party made the right move? Our commentators give their verdict
Jill Abramson: ‘Does the party have to hit bottom to recover?’
The Wall Street Journal hammered him. Breitbart News labeled him “the most radical Cabinet member since Henry Wallace”, who was so far to the left that Franklin Roosevelt dumped him from the Democratic ticket in 1944. He rejuvenated the civil rights division of the justice department, taking action against racist voter suppression efforts and initiating investigations of police abuse. He was Ted Kennedy’s civil rights counsel. How could the victory of a man with these credentials be judged a defeat for progressives?
Only inside the weakened, fractured Democratic party, which has always had a fatal attraction for circular firing squads. Tom Perez, winner of the Democratic National Committee’s chairmanship, inherits the job at a particularly difficult time. Because he jumped into the race after Bernie Sanders had endorsed Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress and an early Sanders backer, Perez was caricatured as the establishment candidate. It’s true that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton preferred him, but the former labor secretary, who won backtime pay and extended overtime for workers, is any sane person’s definition of a progressive.
Still, the narrative of a bitter split between Sanders Democrats and establishment Democrats has taken hold. Any long-term intraparty strife is an unneeded distraction and badly timed energy-suck. Democrats are in retreat almost everywhere, with minority status in both congressional chambers, only 16 governors’ offices and majorities in only 31 of 99 state legislatures. Most worrisome, they will have more than 25 Senate seats at risk in 2018.
Some Sanders supporters and former campaign workers are talking about launching primary challenges to moderate Democratic senators, just as the Tea Party decimated incumbent moderate Republicans. I understand that the Trump trauma and Clinton’s unexpected loss has Democrats in a swivet. But does the party have to hit bottom to recover? We will soon see. The Sanders wing is right that the best place to start rebuilding is not in Washington but at the local and state levels. There have been Sanders takeovers in the states of Washington, Hawaii and Nebraska, and grassroots winds are blowing stronger – all healthy developments for Democrats.
But the health of the national party can’t be ignored, something that Perez and Ellison both recognize, which is why they will try to work together as a team. They see clearly that they share progressive values and need strategic wins. Most important, Democrats need strength to save their country from authoritarian rule by an unbalanced president. It would be wise if the party’s base followed their example.
Kate Aronoff: ‘An unbelievably stupid call’
Progressives’ battle for the soul of the Democratic party was not won or lost when Tom Perez became the Democratic National Committee’s new chairman this weekend. But it did suffer a blow.
By choosing to run Perez in the first place against Keith Ellison – a longtime community organizer and the first Muslim member of Congress –the party’s higher-ups made an unbelievably stupid call. In voting for him, picking a deliberate fight with the left over a largely symbolic office, they have risked alienating the only people capable of keeping the Democratic party from stumbling into irrelevance.
The party is in disrepair. Democrats have lost over 1,000 seats at the state and national level since 2009, including one they should have won by a landslide in 2016: the White House. Its best hope at remaining a force under Trump lies with its activist base, which backed Bernie Sanders in the primaries, Ellison in the leadership fight and is now leading the resistance to Trump in the streets. Whether to follow the party’s leftmost flank is a question that has far more to do with strategy than ideology. Clintonite politics are broken. To beat Trump and take back power, Democrats need something new.
If there is a silver lining to the leadership race, it is that Ellison’s bid helped clarify the fault lines within the Democratic party. On one side, its establishment: Clinton backers and former White House insiders, along with billionaire donors like Haim Saban, who I believe fuelled a racist and Islamophobic campaign against Ellison with which party elites were more than happy to play along. On the other is the resistance: longtime Sanders supporters, but also several new faces, from major unions like SEIU and the AFT to Democratic fixtures like Chuck Schumer.
Perez might be in charge of the DNC, but leaders like Ellison are the Democrats’ future – at least, if they want to survive.
Daniel José Camacho: ‘Resistance will have to continue against the Democratic establishment’